TV Eye

Broadcast rituals

"If it didn't happen on television, then it didn't happen."

Or so said Pope John Paul II, according to various talking heads remarking on his legacy last week on CNN and elsewhere. I'm inclined to believe the attribution, although most of the talking heads appeared to be Vatican-approved sources. Where were the Liberation Theologists or writers like Angela Bonavoglia, who has written extensively about the role of women in challenging the Catholic church? What about Las Hermanas, the dynamic group of religious women who have been traversing the minefield where faith, doctrine, and church politics butt heads? The response to these questions is surely a hand-patting "This isn't the appropriate time." That would be a satisfactory response if I could believe the harder questions would be addressed in the future, instead of sloughed off like used gift wrap.

Like President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II understood the power of the media. A prolific writer, he cast his thoughts into books and spoken-word CDs, and, more importantly, he transmitted his image leading Mass via satellite. Because of his understanding of the medium and the deep reach that resulted from his use of it, it's no surprise that his funeral drew millions to Rome to pay their final respects, and that news organizations from across the globe were there to capture the event. And what an event it was, full of music and pageantry, yards and yards of blood-red fabric draped over the shoulders of Cardinals whose job is now to select the next heir to the papal throne. It was all very beautiful. So beautiful, someone like me could almost forget that when it comes to my intrinsic personal views, the Catholic church and I part ways. Almost.

Although Pope John Paul II embraced new technology, he used it in the service of expressing centuries-old ideas. Something about seeing high ritual and ceremony over my TV screen heightened the experience at the same time it made it foreign to me. I found myself wondering what the incense smelled like, longed for the camera to linger on Vatican Square's architectural elements that caught my eye. A good deal of the time, I found myself wondering how many fingers were pricked sewing those yards and yards of ceremonial robes and cloth. In short, I could admire the beauty of the ceremony, but it didn't belong to me.

In another part of the world – Houston, to be exact – there was another televised ritual occurring: a special tribute concert marking the 10-year anniversary of Tejana singer Selena's death. I'm embarrassed to say I forgot to tape this event, which aired live on Univision, but eyewitness descriptions of the concert – from the image of Mr. and Mrs. Quintanilla (Selena's parents) sitting front-row center to the description of the white handkerchiefs the audience waved to what I presume was a sea of brown faces packing Houston's Reliant Stadium – brought me unexpected comfort. In imagining those images and knowing they appeared on TV, I was reminded by the deceptively simple yet elaborate way that media works that I exist. It sounds silly, but the next time you find yourself in the minority in a group (and if you never have, ask yourself why), note how the peculiarity of the experience distracts you in a way words can't express. That, or it pokes you square in the face. Depends on you and depends on the circumstances.

But I digress.

There's a natural, human need for ritual, I suspect. It may not always come adorned in finery or glowing candles or songs written for the occasion. For as much as we become more and more enmeshed with our high tech means of communication (perhaps creating new rituals yet to be decoded), the need for ritual doesn't seem to change. There's something comfortingly human in that.

Speaking of comfort, I would like to enact my own, makeshift ritual at this point. For lots of reasons I can't explain in the remaining space, I've been deeply moved by the death of 19 undocumented workers, whose lives have been treated in the news as little more than collateral damage in the wider issue of human smuggling. No concert was held in their name. There was no televised pageantry for their funerals. As they were spoken of as one amorphous entity, I feel a personal compulsion to offer them the dignity of casting their names in ink:

José Antonio Villaseñor, Serafin Rivera, Roberto Rivera, Héctor Ramirez, José Luis Ramirez, Elisendo Cabañas, Edgar Gabriel Hernández, Juan Carlos Castillo, Ricardo González, Oscar González, Caterino González, Juan José Morales, Mateo Salgado, Chelve Benitez, Rogelia Dominguez, José Felicito Figueroa, José Mauricio Torres, Stanley Augusto Vargas, and Marco Antonio Villaseñor (age 5).

As always, stay tuned.

Austin on TV

Kudos to the Downtown Alliance, Action Figure, and local PBS affiliate KLRU on the launch of Downtown. This new, locally produced series celebrating downtown Austin gets it right by finding the stories and storytellers that make Austin Austin. Downtown airs Thursdays at 8pm on broadcast Channel 18, 9pm on cable Channel 9. A Spanish-subtitled version of the show airs Wednesdays at 9:30pm on cable Channel 20.

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Pope John Paul II, Downtown, Selena

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